We are so very fond of dropping the ‘S’ word, aren’t we? “I’m so stressed.” - “This is too stressful!” – “I’m beyond stress” – “Aaargh!” And may I say, it’s no wonder. Right now we are living through experiences not known for over 100 years in our little corner of the world. The last year has been full of lost freedoms, imposed limitations and a herculean need to manage everything and everyone in different ways, whilst living in complete disconnection and chaos.
Living in the unknown, surrounded by risk and uncertainty, always adds that chilli-burn of stress to any situation. Covid has certainly been tough, and in many unexpected ways. But hold on! When you look back to those heady pre-Covid days, when all was ‘normal’ in your world, weren’t you still feeling stressed then? Isn’t it just part of modern living that we tend to be time and energy-poor? Don’t we usually have a sense that the expectations and demands driving us are constantly heading into overdrive? Or maybe it is just me?…but I don’t think so.
Where do these expectations and demands come from? Well I’m not letting work, money, families, shopping, ill-health or anything else off the hook; but frankly, we also do it to ourselves.
Does any of this mostly silent monologue seem familiar? “Was it good enough? I should have… I didn’t… Why didn’t I? They’ll think I’m useless. I am useless at this. I’m rubbish. I’m hopeless. I’m worthless. I hate myself. And I’m old/fat/stupid/[add in your own preferred seriously damaging insult]”
That familiar inner critic is so much more active when we are feeling stressed. In no time at all, we reach that vindaloo-heat where we hate our life, our work, our luck, our nearest and dearest and/or ourselves. All because of the overload of that ‘demon stress’.
It’s easy for me to say this, sitting here typing on a sunny evening at home, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. When we experience too much stress all at once and/or for too long we go into stress overload. But come on, let’s be honest. There were warning signs before you ever got to that point. You secretly knew it was all getting too much. Of course, you were trapped in that driving force that the stress was so great you couldn’t possibly stop to get some fresh air, have a hot cup of the legal drug of your choice (or some water), stretch your legs, play a couple of your favourite songs or just otherwise be spontaneous. Even though you know deep down that those things would have cooled the intensity of it all and given you some renewed perspective.
Much of the time, it isn’t that stress is the demon that we picture doggedly shadowing our every move, ready to drag us down into the burning pits of hell. Rather, stress responses communicate to us that the pressure is a bit much and that we might soon need to reach for the cucumber raita. Feelings of stress are triggered in our bodies to alert us to a chemical shift in our brain. For a fair while our brain can cope and will rise to the occasion. In fact, in the short term, stress can spur us on, make us more efficient or more creative.
We can also extend that period of time when we are coping well with those high levels of stress, by using tricks such as focusing on isolated tasks rather than multi-tasking, taking timely breaks and rehydrating, taking some exercise and/or some fresh air, breaking for some human interaction, accessing some help by organising things differently and/or shifting our own or others’ expectations. Instead, we ignore the warning signs and allow ourselves to spiral down into negativity and despair. Believe me, I know. I’ve got a whole wardrobe full of the t-shirts!
As adults we tend to live too much in our minds and not enough in our bodies. The warning signs that you are under serious stress are there. If you can’t recognise them yourself, your family will probably enjoy telling you what they are! So catch them early and take regular remedial action. April is Stress Awareness Month and now is the time to make some good changes. Be your own hero. It’s time to treat yourself as you would your best friend.
Start by taking a look at this fascinating TED talk to see that stress can itself be your friend.
Hopefully we will see you at the Wellbeing conference on 15th June, when we will be focussing on how else to ensure that we are all experiencing and promoting ‘Flourishing Lives’.